Joy Magazine

Woman of the land

Dene Bish continues a family legacy of stewardship

Standing among a copse of trees in the foothills along Wagner Creek Road near Talent, the home of Walter and Dene Bish blends as seamlessly into the landscape as if it had been planted there. Many windows reflect the sky above and the earth below, and it glows like a shy jewel.

"I love being in the woods this way," says Dene Bish. "My husband and I shared a love for the natural world, and we felt a responsibility for stewardship."

Born in Medford in 1929, she married Walter Bish in 1946 at the age of 17. The Bishes purchased their homestead in 1955, settling in to care for their three children and for the land around them.

"It was a good marriage," says Dene Bish. "We had 48 years of it before his death. A nice, long time, but not long enough.

Today, the small family garden and orchard has grown into Plant Oregon, a nursery of native trees and shrubs begun by the Bishes' son, Daniel, in 1976. Plant Oregon extends well beyond the homestead's original four acres and provides plantings that can create sustainable forests to support the local ecosystem.

"I used to ride horseback where there are houses now," says Dene Bish. "So much of the fertile agricultural land in the Rogue Valley has been paved over and developed. I think that is a mistake. There is land that is not agriculturally suitable that is not used for development.

"We come by our affection for our home quite naturally. When my ancestors first came to the West, they settled on some land that they wanted to be a welcoming, resting place. They retained that land and their affection for it throughout their lives."

Bish earned master's degrees in education and educational media from Southern Oregon College and has developed her skills as far away as Wales in Great Britain. She began her professional career as an elementary-school teacher, but found her niche as school librarian.

"I think that was my true calling," she says. "I love the library."

Remembering others who inspired her, Bish leans heavily on the memories of the women in her family.

"I lived with my grandmother, Mattie Luman, for some years in my childhood, as she had lived with her grandmother, Mary Angeline. My Gram loved nature, and we would go pick blackberries. They lived in the country in Medford, on Lone Pine Road. There was a little stream, and we would play in it. She taught me to love fantasy and imagination and books and education.

"Mary Angeline was the first white child to be born northwest of the Columbia River," continues Bish. "She lived until 1934, and Chief Seattle named his daughter after her — Princess Angeline."

Mary Angeline's father, Sidney Ford, was Bish's great-great-great-grandfather. He and his wife, Nancy Shaw, came from New York in 1845 and arrived to settle the Oregon Territory alongside other first families, such as the Spaldings and Whitmans.

The Fords settled near Centralia in southwest Washington and constructed a home of hand-hewn timber near the banks of the Chehalis River. The area is known to this day as Ford's Prairie.

Ford and his sons played a large role in early American government. As aides to Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens, they served as interpreters and members of the military. The Ford home was a way station between the Columbia River and Seattle and often was used as a courthouse.

"Sidney Ford was originally a highly respected Indian agent and eventually became a District Court judge," says Bish. "He was highly regarded by the people he worked with. He treated them fairly, he defended them when he could, and the tribes that he was responsible for were very protective of him.

"They saved his life many times against more hostile Native Americans, such as the North Chehalis. Some people were very resentful of the mistreatment they were receiving at the hands of the American government, and rightfully so. Because Sidney was a representative of that government, his family was a target."

Now surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Bish, like the strong women who compose her lineage, is continuing the family tradition of stewardship. And she still calls the Rogue Valley home.

"My longevity here is part of my heritage," she says.

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